Georgia basketball looking to reverse trend vs. Florida

Georgia guard Silas Demary Jr. (left) and LSU forward Jalen Reed (13) fight for a loose ball during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game at Stegeman Coliseum, Wednesday, January 24, 2024, in Athens. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Georgia guard Silas Demary Jr. (left) and LSU forward Jalen Reed (13) fight for a loose ball during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game at Stegeman Coliseum, Wednesday, January 24, 2024, in Athens. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Georgia basketball hasn’t had much success against Florida for a while now. In truth, it has been fairly miserable against the Gators of late.

Of course, Mike White had a lot to do with that. The Bulldogs’ current coach ran the Florida program for seven seasons before taking over in Athens. During White’s time with the Gators, Florida was 11-3 against the Bulldogs. Entering the game against UGA here at Exactech Arena on Saturday (noon, ESPN2), the Gators have won eight in a row in the 100-year-old series.

Georgia lost both games against the Gators with White on its bench last year (82-75 in Gainesville; 77-67 in Athens), so it wasn’t like he was the magic bullet. But things are trending much better this season for the Bulldogs, and they are hopeful that White can help reverse the trend against their SEC archrival.

“It’ll be a tough environment, we know that,” said White, who led the Gators to five NCAA tournaments in his seven seasons. “It’s an opportunity against a team I think is capable of beating anybody in our league. They’ve got size. They’re really good on the offensive glass. They guard you like LSU. They can really space you with multiple guards who can make plays. They’re very difficult to defend, and it will be a very difficult game for us, like every road game in our league.”

The Bulldogs (14-5, 4-2 SEC) have been good on the road this season. They’re 3-1, with the lone loss coming Saturday against No. 6 Kentucky 105-96 in Lexington.

Saturday’s game is particularly significant because, with a No. 74 RPI ranking, Florida (13-6, 3-3 SEC) represents a Quad 1 away opponent for the Bulldogs. Georgia, which is 1-3 in Quad 1 games, actually has the better RPI coming in (54), but the Gators are No. 42 in the NET rankings to the Bulldogs’ 78.

Suffice it to say, it’s a meaningful contest for a pair of NCAA bubble teams beyond the hatred that permeates this SEC rivalry.

“We know it’s going to be a tough crowd,” freshman guard Silas Demary Jr. said. “We just need to go in with confidence and be ourselves.”

Said 7-foot graduate Russel Tchewa: “This is the SEC, so they’re all big. We know they’re going to have a good game plan, so we’ve got to be ready.”

UGA has faced Florida in hoops more than any other foe. Saturday’s game will be the 228th in the series, which the Gators lead 122-105 all time.

The intensity of the rivalry is not lost on the Bulldogs despite having only one Georgia native on the roster (junior forward Jalen DeLoach of Savannah). The other 13 UGA players are out-of-state products, with eight of them starting their careers elsewhere and coming to Athens via the transfer portal.

“You’ve got people on the team who aren’t from Georgia, but you know about the rivalries just from what the fans say,” said guard Noah Thomasson, a Houston native who came to UGA as a graduate transfer from Niagara (N.Y.) College. “It’s just like Georgia Tech. I didn’t know anything about it when I got here, but you could just kind of feel it on campus. We knew we had to beat Georgia Tech and protect the state in that rivalry. Georgia-Florida’s the same way. We’ve got to go in there and win it for the fans.”

Including four freshman signees, Georgia has eight newcomers overall. But despite having so many new parts, the Bulldogs have come together impressively. Georgia entered the weekend ranked 29th nationally in bench points at 29.7 ppg and have won the bench-scoring battle in 17 of 19 games. That group currently sports a scoring margin of plus-245 points, or 12.9 ppg.

Georgia is one of three teams with a higher scoring average in SEC play (78.0-76.2). Three Bulldogs have upped their production in league outings in Demary (8.5 ppg to 13.8), Justin Hill from (8.5 to 10.3) ppg and Jabri Abdur-Rahim (13.2 to 14.8).

Georgia is coming off a hard-fought 68-66 victory over LSU on Wednesday night at Stegeman Coliseum, where it is 11-1 this season. Demary led the Bulldogs with 15 points, and Tchewa recorded a double-double with 11 points and 11 rebounds and scored the winning basket with 2.3 seconds to play.

The Gators just knocked off Mississippi State on 79-70 on Wednesday night at Exactech Arena, where they’re 8-1 this season. Kentucky, then ranked sixth, is the only team to win there this season, which it did 87-85 on Jan. 6.

In their second season under coach Todd Golden, the Gators sport one of the SEC’s more productive and balanced offenses. Five players are scoring at a double-digit pace, led by 6-foot-3 junior guard Walter Clayton Jr. (15.8 ppg). Point guard Zyon Pullin averages 14.6 points and a team-best 4.6 assists per game.

Florida is a load to handle in the front court with a pair of transfer post players. Forward Tyrese Samuel, a 6-10, 239-pound graduate of Seton Hall, averages 13.5 points and ranks third in the SEC with 8.3 rebounds per game. Micah Handlogten, a 7-1, 235-pound sophomore transfer from Marshall, is averaging 7.4 boards to go with 6.5 points per game.

Georgia and Florida have one common opponent in Florida State. The Gators beat them 89-68 on Nov. 17 in Gainesville, while the Bulldogs defeated the Seminoles 68-66 in Tallahassee 12 days later.

Georgia’s most recent win in Gainesville was 61-55 on March 2, 2019. The Bulldogs are 39-69 all time on the Gators’ home court.

“This team has room for growth,” White said of the Bulldogs. “We’ve got a ways to go. We’ve got opportunities to win more. Hopefully we’ll continue to do that. But I’ll be shocked if, when the ball stops bouncing, this hasn’t been a resilient team all year.”

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